Basement 3D Printer Builds Are Too Easy. Try Building One on Mars.

[Tony Stark Elon Musk] envisions us sending one million people to Mars in your lifetime. Put aside the huge number or challenges in that goal — we’re going to need a lot of places to live. That’s a much harder problem than colonization where mature trees were already standing, begging to become planks in your one-room hut. Nope, we need to build with what’s already up there, and preferably in a way that prepares structures before their inhabitants arrive. NASA is on it, and by on it, we mean they need you to figure it out as part of their 3D Printed Hab Challenge.

The challenge started with a concept phase last year, awarding $25k to the winning team for a plan to use Martian ice as a building material for igloo-like habs that also filter out radiation. The top 30 entries were pretty interesting so check them out. But now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty. How would any of these ideas actually be implemented? If you can figure that out, you can score $2M.

Official rules won’t be out until Friday, but we’d love to hear some outrageous theories on how to do this in the comments below. The whole thing reminds us of one of the [Brian Herbert]/[Kevin J. Anderson] Dune prequels where swarms of robot colonists crash-land on planets throughout the universe and immediately start pooping out building materials. Is a robot vanguard the true key to planet colonization, and how soon do you think we can make that happen? We’re still waiting for robot swarms to clean up our oceans. But hey, surely we can do both concurrently.

How To Hack A Spacecraft To Die Gracefully

Last week, the Rosetta spacecraft crashed into comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko after orbiting it since 2014. It was supposed to do that: the mission was at an end, and the mission designers wanted to end it by getting a close look at the surface of the comet. But this raises an interesting problem: how do you get a device that is designed to never stop to actually stop?
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Retrotechtacular: Power Driven Articulated Dummy

If any of you have ever made a piece of clothing, you’ll know some of the challenges involved. Ensuring a decent and comfortable fit for the wearer, because few real people conform exactly to commercial sizes. It’s as much a matter of style as it is of practicality, because while ill-fitting clothing might be a sartorial fail, it’s hardly serious.

When the piece of clothing is a space suit though, it is a different matter. You are not so much making a piece of clothing as a habitat, and one that will operate in an environment in which a quick change to slip into something more comfortable is not possible. If you get it wrong at best your astronaut will be uncomfortable and at worst their life could be threatened.

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Apollo: The Alignment Optical Telescope

The Apollo program is a constant reminder that we just don’t need so much to get the job done. Sure it’s easier with today’s tools, but hard work can do it too. [Bill Hammack] elaborates on one such piece of engineering: The Alignment Optical Telescope.

The telescope was used to find the position of the Lunar Module in space so that its guidance computer could do the calculations needed to bring the module home. It does this using techniques that we’ve been using for centuries on land and still use today in space; although now it’s done with computer vision. It was used to align the craft to the stars. NASA used stars as the fixed reference points for the coordinate system used to locate objects in space. But how was this accomplished with great precision?

The alignment optical telescope did this by measuring two unknowns needed by the guidance computer. The astronaut would find the first value by pointing the telescope in the general area necessary to establish a reading, then rotate the first reticle (a horizontal line) on the telescope until it touched the correct star. A ring assembly was then adjusted, moving an Archimedes spiral etched onto the viewfinder. When the spiral touches the star you can read the second value, established by how far the ring has been rotated.

If you’ve ever seen the Lunar Module in person, your first impression might be to giggle a bit at how crude it is. The truth is that much of that crudeness was hard fought to achieve. They needed the simplest, lightest, and most reliable assembly the world had ever constructed. As [Bill Hammack] states at the end of the video, breaking the complicated tool usually used into two simple dials is an amazing engineering achievement.

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Bombing The Sky For The Sake Of Radio

If you are familiar with radio propagation you’ll know that radio waves do not naturally bend around the earth. Like light and indeed all electromagnetic radiation if they are given a free space they will travel in a straight line.

At very high frequencies this means that in normal circumstances once a receiver moves over the horizon from a transmitter that’s it, you’re out of range and there can be no communication. But at lower frequencies this is not the case. As you move through the lower end of the VHF into the HF (Short Wave) portion of the spectrum and below, the radio signal routinely travels far further than the horizon, and at the lower HF frequencies it starts to reach other continents, even as far as the other side of the world.

Of course, we haven’t changed the Laws Of Physics. Mr. Scott’s famous maxim still stands. Radio waves at these frequencies are being reflected, from ionised portions of the atmosphere and from the ground, sometimes in multiple “hops”. The science of this mechanism has been the subject of over a hundred years of exploration and will no doubt be for hundreds more, for the atmosphere is an unreliable boiling soup of gasses rather than a predictable mirror for your radio waves.

Radio amateurs have turned pushing the atmosphere to its limits into a fine art, but what if you would prefer to be able to rely on it? The US military has an interest in reliable HF communications as well as in evening out the effects of solar wind on the ionisation of the atmosphere, and has announced a research program involving bombing the upper atmosphere with plasma launched from cubesats. Metal ions will be created from both chemical reactions and by small explosions, and their results on the atmosphere will be studied.

Of course, this isn’t the first time the upper atmosphere has been ionised in military experiments. Both the USA and the USSR exploded nuclear weapons  at these altitudes before the cessation of atmospheric nuclear testing, and more recently have directed high power radio waves with the aim of ionising the upper atmosphere. You may have heard of the USA’s HAARP project in Alaska, but Russia’s Sura Ionospheric Heating Facility near Nizhniy Novgorod has been used for similar work. It remains to be seen whether these latest experiments will meet with success, but we’re sure they won’t be the last of their kind.

We’ve looked at radio propagation in the past with this handy primer, and we’ve also featured a military use of atmospheric reflection with over-the-horizon radar.

Fishbowl Starfish Prime upper atmosphere nuclear test image via Los Alamos National Laboratory. As an image created by an officer or employee of the United States government as part of their official duties this image is in the public domain.

HTC Vive Gives Autonomous Robots Direction

The HTC Vive is a virtual reality system designed to work with Steam VR. The system seeks to go beyond just a headset in order to make an entire room a virtual reality environment by using two base stations that track the headset and controller in space. The hardware is very exciting because of the potential to expand gaming and other VR experiences, but it’s already showing significant potential for hackers as well — in this case with robotics location and navigation.

Autonomous robots generally utilize one of two basic approaches for locating themselves: onboard sensors and mapping to see the world around it (like how you’d get your bearings while hiking), or sensors in the room which tell the robot where it is (similar to your GPS telling you where you are in the city). Each method has its strengths and weaknesses, of course. Onboard sensors are traditionally expensive if you need very accurate position data, and GPS location data is far too inaccurate to be of use on a smaller scale than city streets.

[Limor] immediately saw the potential in the HTC Vive to solve this problem, at least for indoor applications. Using the Vive Lighthouse base stations, he’s able to locate the system’s controller in 3D space to within 0.3mm. He’s then able to use this data on a Linux system and integrate it into ROS (Robot Operating System). [Limor] hasn’t yet built a robot to utilize this approach, but the significant cost savings ($800 for a complete Vive, but only the Lighthouses and controller are needed) is sure to make this a desirable option for a lot of robot builders. And, as we’ve seen, integrating the Vive hardware with DIY electronics should be entirely possible.

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Commanding Kerbals With A Physical Interface

Kerbal Space Program will have you hurling little green men into the wastes of outer space, landing expended boosters back on the launchpad, and using resources on the fourth planet from the Sun to bring a crew back home. Kerbal is the greatest space simulator ever created, teaches orbital mechanics better than the Air Force textbook, but it is missing one thing: switches and blinky LEDs.

[SgtNoodle] felt this severe oversight by the creators of Kerbal could be remedied by building his Kerbal Control Panel, which adds physical buttons, switches, and a real 6-axis joystick for roleplaying as an Apollo astronaut.

The star of this build is the custom six-axis joystick, used for translation control when docking, maneuvering, or simply puttering around in space. Four axis joysticks are easy, but to move forward and backward, [SgtNoodle] replaced the shaft of a normal arcade joystick with a carriage bolt, added a washer on one end, and used two limit switches to give this MDF cockpit Z+ and Z- control.

The rest of the build is equally well detailed, with a CNC’d front panel, toggle switches and missile switch covers, with everything connected to an Arduino Mega. This Arduino interfaces the switches to the game with the kRPC mod, which creates a script-driven interface to the game. So, toggling the landing gear switch, for instance, triggers a script which interfaces with KSP to lower your landing gear prior to a nice, safe landing. Or, more likely, a terrifying crash.